For the last couple of years I’ve been trying to acquiring enough points to enter the UTMB lottery. Last year I completed the 101km CCC, a hundred miler in the UK this summer, and the final piece of the puzzle was the 121km TDS – another of the UTMB events.
Naively, I assumed that at only 121km the Trail des Ducs de Savoie would be a nice intermediate step – a kind of apprenticeship to the UTMB. The race was introduced in 2009 and traces the Grande Randonée paths through the Aosta valley in Italy, and then the Beaufort, Tarentaise and finally Mont-Blanc valley in France.
Amy and I drove up to Chamonix the afternoon before and checked into our apartment – it wasn’t the best facility but was at least only 5 minutes walk from the centre of town and the start/finish line. Registration and kit check passed without a hitch, although the queues were long so the whole thing took a good hour or so.
Despite the clear blue skies, blazing sun and warm temperatures, the race organisers were warning of poor weather the next few days and the mandatory equipment check was quite heavily geared towards ensuring we all had waterproof clothing and working mobiles. Back in the apartment, I got an automated text from the organisers that due to bad weather the race route would be modified and would start two hours later – at least I would get longer in bed; so with that in mind I did one final kit check and set my alarm for 5am.
The next morning, the apocalyptic weather hadn’t materialised, and after the shuttle buses had deposited us on the other side of the Mont Blanc tunnel in Courmayeur and the sun came up, the warnings seemed even more overblown as we were treated to the start of a glorious day. However the last announcement before the start said that as soon as we hit the Col de Petit Saint Bernard and crossed into France, the weather would become decidedly less pleasant.
The start was just like last year’s CCC – and the delayed start meant that more spectators were out to cheer us through the streets. The first trails we hit were quite wide and this meant that the usual bottlenecks you experience in mass start ultras weren’t really a problem. Over the course of 10km or so we climbed over 1000m before dropping down to Lac Combal. The terrain here was stunning – surrounded by glaciers and sweeping views I started to get an idea of why this course is well known for being more rugged and remote than its UTMB siblings.
After leaving Lac Combal the hot sun and clear skies meant that I exhausted my water supplies quickly on the hard climb up to Col Chavannes, but dropping off the other side we descended a long 4×4 track which allowed me to effortlessly knock off 7-8km at 5:30min/km. I was a bit worried this was going too fast and I would pay for it later but it was great to get some distance under my belt.
Finally the rain came. On the climb up to the Col du Petit Saint Bernard the clouds became more ominous and then suddenly, around 30 minutes from the next checkpoint the heavens opened and we were soaked by ferocious, driving rain. That mandatory kit came in handy as despite the waterproof jacket, gloves and hat, I was shivering by the time I got to the aid station which thankfully was serving hot pasta soup.
Afterwards the descent into Bourg Saint-Maurice was a tough one – made all that much harder that we could see the town in the distance from a long way off so it seemed to take ages to arrive, but at least it was drying out and warming up. The checkpoint was heaving with people as it was the first point where outside assistance was allowed. I’d asked Amy not to come to the CPs because they were pretty remote, and I could rely on the drop bag at Cormet de Roselend instead.
Every race report and review of the TDS I have read seems to have one thing in common – the climb out of Bourg Saint-Maurice and up to the Cormet de Roselend is steep and relentless. The almost 2000m of vertical in the late afternoon sun (for most of us) and with limited water opportunities this was something that loomed large on the profile map after relatively easy running of the first 50km. Our weather-affected route meant that the climb wasn’t constant, but instead it kept dropping back down, losing height and adding distance before eventually reaching the Cormet de Roselend after what seemed like an eternity. Cracks of forked lightning pointed the way we were headed as well as signalling the meteorological conditions that would be in store for us as night fell.
Cormet de Roselend was the first opportunity to access my drop bag, and I got changed into new layers and socks which gave more of a psychological boost than much else. I took on some soup and hot, sweet tea and had a ten minute doze on my backpack before heading back out into the night.
More climbing – this time as the rain started to come down harder and the trails got higher and more technical, the pace slowed as we picked our way through the trails in the dark. However going up was far better than the following descent down to La Gittaz. Rivers of mud, reminiscent of last year’s CCC meant we were slipping and sliding constantly. As we edged through a gorge we passed a blazing bonfire in the night, surrounded by a team of emergency service responders and it pretty soon became clear why they were stationed there as a precaution, as just further on we tentatively edged our way over wet, slippery rocks with a steep drop to a raging torrent on our right.
Thankfully this was successfully navigated and we passed through the time check at La Gittaz where I followed the line of headlamps snaking up into the darkness towards Les 2 Nants.
More slipping and sliding on the descent (can you spot a theme here?) towards the refuge at Col du Joly where the sound of Foreigner, wanting to know what love is, was blaring from the speakers to guide us in. Lack of sleep, fatigue, darkness and a thriving bar pumping out music up in the middle of nowhere contributed to the surrealism of the experience.
The trails were becoming ridiculously slippery now and on the exit from the Col du Joly aid station I ended up sliding down the hill like I was Frank Spencer (if you’re not British from a certain era you will need to Google it) on roller skates – my trekking poles looped over my wrists didn’t help and I slid down on my back. Thankfully no major harm was done and soon the trail turned to more hard packed 4×4 track I was able to reach Les Contamines by around 5am.
All Downhill From Here?
From here on I was sure I had this nailed. There was ‘just’ the Col de Tricot to pass and then it was more or less all downhill to Chamonix; in total no more than another 25km but encompassing another 1300m or so of climbing. The climb up to Tricot however was incredibly steep – although this had been the theme for the whole race, coming after 100km it was tough and people were dropping like flies, allowing me to make up nearly 50 places on this climb alone. More than once I was treated to a rendition of somebody vomiting into the undergrowth as I stood surveying the natural beauty around me.
After passing the Col the technical trails on the other side were fairly runnable as things were drying up and despite the heavy clouds it was shaping up to be a nice day in Chamonix. Passing the Nid de l’Aigle tramway I arrived in Les Houches where I really didn’t stay long – I’d been told it was 8km flat run into Chamonix and I was keen to get this done with.
We had to cross the motorway via bridge to get onto the back forest track that led into Chamonix and after so long on remote trails it was amazing to be cheered and applauded by so many people on the streets. Nearly every car that went past would honk it’s horn which just helped add to the renewed enthusiasm.
The back run into Chamonix was more ‘undulating’ than flat meaning a couple of sections were power-hiked but I managed to keep running for the most part and many others were finding the same second-wind. In fact between Les Contamines and the finish line I improved my ranking by over 100 places, I think helped by the cool night with it’s slow pace – I was able to avoid a lot of eating to let my stomach recover.
The sun was coming out and the heat starting to build, but by 11am I was heading into the outskirts of Chamonix. More and more cheers and clapping from people on the trail encouraging me home, and the closer I got to the finish the more intense this became. I managed to speed up from a slow trot to a relative sprint by the time I reached the last 200m, responding to the cheers of the crowd, high-fiving and banging on the crowd barriers.
I crossed the finish line in 27hrs 13m 17s, coming under my target time of 28hrs, and nearly 6 hours ahead of the cutoff.
Plastic Is Not Fantastic
This year the UTMB organisers have announced that they’ve removed single use plastic cups, plates and utensils from the course which I think is a fantastic idea. This meant that we all had to bring our own utensils – the only downside was that at aid stations I needed to keep getting up and down again (eg. after finishing soup, get up to get a Coke, then get a bowl of pasta) rather than be able to take everything I wanted over to the table. Next time I’ll probably bring a couple of cups/bowls rather than just the one.
The Race in Stats
Runner’s Page: https://utmbmontblanc.com/en/live/runner/7481